Is Russia ready to compromise with Japan?


September 2, 2016 – 

 – Katehon – 

Just before the meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on cooperation with Japan and negotiations on the status of the South Kuril Islands (Iturup, Shikotan, Kunashir and Habomai group of islands) in front of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.

The main condition: strengthening Japanese sovereignty

The president of Russia noted the need for a peace treaty with Japan to be signed. According to Putin, the issue of “northern territories” so painful for the Japanese side must also be solved in a consistent manner so that none of the parties involved feel like they have lost. According to the Russian president, the main factor that would make moving the process forward possible is expanding cooperation between Japan and Russia. When the level of mutual trust between Japan and Russia is comparable to that observable between Russia and China, then compromise will be reached, the president said.

Thus, the Russian president has hinted that the solution to border disputes with China, in which China received a number of territories formerly controlled by the Soviet Union and Russia, was achieved only because China acted as an independent and friendly power for Russia. The real problem facing the resolution of territorial disputes between Russia and Japan is the latter country’s strategic cooperation with the United States and its de facto American occupation. Under these conditions, the transfer of islands to Japan would mean de facto transferring them to the US, Russia’s main geopolitical rival, which is inadmissible for Russia.

US opposition

The Russian president referred to the Declaration of 1956 as a precedent which opened the way to a peace treaty. The process was then broken off under US pressure. According to the declaration, the USSR and Japan agreed to transfer the islands of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan. But the United States was not interested in the normalization of relations between Japan and the Soviet Union, and thus forced Japan to give up such a reasonable compromise. The United States remains the main problem in Russian-Japanese relations. Russia has hinted that it would like to a see a sovereign Japan more independent in its actions. This would open the door for addressing the issue of the islands.

Mutual interest

Over the past several years, Japan has expressed interest in closer ties with Russia. Joining anti-Russian sanctions under US pressure and the subsequent Russian response provoked a negative reaction from Japanese businesses interested in cooperation with Russian defense corporations. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly, unofficially expressed interest in meeting with the Russian president despite the negative position of the United States. Russia needs Japan from an economic point of view, especially as a transportation corridor to Europe alternative to the Chinese “Silk Road”, as well as a military and political partner.

In terms of geopolitics, Japan is Russia’s most coveted partner in the Far East. Despite the country’s insular position,​​ Japan is a classic continental power in terms of cultural values. This paradox was noted by the German geopoliticians of the first half of the 20th century. The leading German geopolitician, Karl Haushofer, even proposed the idea of ​​a continental block along a “Berlin-Moscow-Tokyo” axis. Like China, Japan has serious economic and innovative potential, which could contribute to the development of the Russian Far East. At the same time, it does not pose any danger to the sparsely populated border regions of Russia from a demographic point of view.

First peace, then negotiations on the Kurils

At the same time, Russia does not directly link the signing of a peace treaty to the question of the status of the South Kurils. Instead, Russia’s position is that a peace treaty should be signed first, and then the South Kuril issue be decided. Japan’s actions for a rapprochement with Russia and its willingness to invest in Russia (specific projects will be presented at the Eastern Economic Forum) show that this view is understood and accepted by Tokyo. 

At the same time, the Japanese government is forced to look at their own public opinion, which believes that it is possible to receive all 4 disputed islands from Russia. Russia prefers to postpone the issue until Japan becomes more independent of the United States (the ideal for Russia would be the US military leaving Japan). If Russia were ready to hypothetically discuss anything at this time, it would be a return to the conditions of the joint Moscow declaration of 1956.

According to experts, the signing of a peace treaty with Russia is also a matter of personal prestige for Abe. In the Japanese tradition of diplomacy, all direct negotiations must be completed with a successful outcome. Hence why all serious issues are first solved through intermediaries. Therefore, the very fact that Abe is visiting Russia and meeting with Vladimir Putin is a sign that the parties have already agreed on key issues of cooperation and are ready to reveal them to the world.

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